The Miniaturist

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The Miniaturist
First edition (UK) with quotation from S. J. Watson
AuthorJessie Burton
Cover artistKatie Tooke, Andersen M Studio[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreHistorical fiction
Set inAmsterdam, 1680s
Published2014, Ecco (US), Picador (UK)

The Miniaturist is the 2014 debut novel of English actor and author Jessie Burton.[2] An international bestseller, it was the focus of a publishers' bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair.[2] Set in Amsterdam in 1686–87, the novel was inspired by Petronella Oortman's doll's house on display at the Rijksmuseum. It does not otherwise attempt to be a biographical novel.[3]


It is 1686 in the Netherlands. Nella (Petronella) Oortman is eighteen, living in a small town. Her late father squandered the family's wealth and she makes an arranged marriage to Johannes Brandt, who is thirty-nine, a rich, respected Amsterdam merchant. The simple ceremony is in her home town, and Johannes returns to Amsterdam the same day; the marriage is not consummated.

A month later, as arranged, Nella goes to his house in Amsterdam to join him. He is not there when she arrives, but she meets the other members of the household. Marin is his severe, unmarried sister. Cornelia is the maid, a little older than Nella, more spirited than maids in the countryside. Otto, Johannes’ servant and business assistant, aged about thirty, is, to Nella's astonishment, an African.

Life becomes difficult for Nella, and there are things she does not understand: tension between Johannes and Marin; sounds of movement at night. It is a house where people listen outside doors and peep through keyholes. Nella spies in Marin’s room, and finds an unsigned love-note sent to her. Johannes is usually out or abroad; he rejects Nella’s caresses. But he gives her a marvellous present: a cabinet house, an eerie replica of the house they live in. She is given generous funds with which to buy more items for the house, and she orders some from a miniaturist. The order is delivered by Jack Philips, a beautiful young man from England, whom Johannes seems to know.

One day Nella, trying to get closer to her husband, makes a surprise visit to his office. She discovers him receiving oral sex from Jack. Marin admits that she knew of this and arranged the marriage because a wife protects them. The punishment for sodomy is death by drowning. Later, while Johannes is abroad, Jack delivers another packet from the miniaturist. In the fracas that ensues, he stabs one of Johannes’ beloved dogs to death and, in a scuffle with Otto, is stabbed with his own dagger. Though the injury is not serious, Otto, afraid of the legal consequences, flees the country.

At present, Johannes is handling an important business affair, the sale of a large stock of sugar belonging to Franz and Agnes Meermans. As young men, Johannes and Franz were equals, working in the Treasury. Franz was in love with Marin, but his marriage proposal was rejected. This was Marin’s free decision, but Franz believes that Johannes forbade the marriage. Johannes has now excelled him in status and wealth, and the sale is financially important to the Meermans. It is also important to Johannes whose wealth has, it seems, lessened, but it seems he is not giving it his full attention. The Meermans go the warehouse where their sugar is stored to check on it – and come across Johannes having sex with a man against the warehouse wall. The man is Jack; he claims he was forced to submit. Franz makes a report to the authorities. Johannes is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

For several months, Marin has been concealing that she is pregnant. When the time comes, she refuses to have a midwife, so that the birth can be kept secret. Nella and Cornelia attend her, often not knowing what to do. The birth is extremely painful and Marin dies soon afterwards. She told them that Franz is the father, but they can see that the baby is Otto’s daughter. Three days after Marin dies, Johannes is executed. Otto returns, to see his child. Nella has sold the sugar to a confectioner whose wife is a lifelong friend of Cornelia’s. A new phase of life begins in the house.

At first, the miniaturist sends Nella the items she has ordered, works of exquisite craftsmanship, but soon begins to send items not ordered, or not yet. Parcels are found on the doorstep in the morning. She sends, inexplicably, a cradle. Other things show an intimate, uncanny knowledge of the house. For example, the figure of Marin shows that her austere clothes are fur-lined, a secret Cornelia has told Nella. Later, the belly of the figure has the curve of pregnancy. Nella discovers that the miniaturist is a woman, whom she sees watching her intensely in public places, but vanishes when she tries to approach her. She wonders, “Are these pieces echoes or presages – or, quite simply, a lucky guess?” Later, she thinks, “I have been watched and guarded, taught and taunted … I thought she was stealing my life, but in truth she opened its compartments and let me look inside.” She discovers that the miniaturist has a similar place in the lives of other women, but the true nature of her power is a mystery.


The doll's house that inspired the novel

Burton, who had studied English literature at the University of Oxford before embarking on an acting career, wrote the novel over a period of four years while supporting herself as an actress and PA in the City of London.[3][4] She came up with the idea while on holiday in Amsterdam, where she viewed Petronella Oortman's doll house at the Rijksmuseum, and undertook extensive research on 17th-century Amsterdam, studying books, cookbooks, Dutch Golden Age paintings, maps, and wills.[2][3][4] She trimmed the word count from 120,000 words to 80,000 words after participating in a creative writing course in 2011 and to better match the marketing target readership.[4]

The novel was the focus of a publishers' bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair.[2] Of the 11 publishers that vied for the book, Picador won the UK and British Commonwealth rights for a reported six-figure sum.[4][5]

The UK cover design is a photograph of an actual miniature doll's house commissioned by Picador, which reflects characters and elements in the novel.[1][5]

Publication history[edit]

By 2016, the book had sold over 1 million copies in 37 countries.[6]


While applauding the tone and setting of the novel, some reviews cited the shallowness of the characterizations. The Guardian and Chicago Tribune reviews observe that Nella is drawn more like a worldly, feminist 21st-century girl than a naïve 17th-century one.[7][8] The Chicago Tribune adds: "[The main characters are] complex and complicated and suffer terrible tragedies, but Burton doesn't give us a deep enough look into their psyches. I'd read 100 additional pages just to get inside Johannes' head".[8]

Awards and honours[edit]

In 2015 the novel also received a nomination for the Desmond Elliott Prize.[11]


BBC One debuted a three-part, 2.5-hour television adaptation of the novel in the UK on 26 December 2017.[12][6][13] The adaptation was written by John Brownlow, directed by Guillem Morales, and produced by The Forge in conjunction with the BBC and Masterpiece.[6][14] The series was filmed on location Leiden in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It starred Anya Taylor-Joy as Nella, Romola Garai as Marin, Emily Berrington as The Miniaturist, and Alex Hassell as Johannes.[13] Episode 1 was seen by 4.52 million viewers and Episode 2 by fewer than 4.31 million viewers.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Designing the cover for The Miniaturist: the more you look, the more you see". Picador. 20 February 2014. Archived from the original on 5 July 2015. Retrieved 4 July 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Jessie Burton: I never thought of The Miniaturist as ambitious". BBC News. 2 December 2014. Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Spiegelman, Ian (29 August 2014). "Jessie Burton on the dollhouse that inspired her novel". USA Today. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Morris, Linda (5 June 2014). "New author Jessie Burton has found success with 'The Miniaturist'". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  5. ^ a b "Ex-CBC student Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist is out today". Curtis Brown Creative. 3 July 2014. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  6. ^ a b c "BBC One announces adaption of Jessie Burton's sumptuous period thriller The Miniaturist (press release)". BBC One. 28 August 2016. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  7. ^ Cooke, Rachel (29 June 2014). "The Miniaturist review – Jessie Burton's much-hyped but unconvincing debut". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  8. ^ a b Memmott, Carol (29 August 2014). "Review: 'The Miniaturist' by Jessie Burton". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  9. ^ Tim Masters (1 December 2014). "Miniaturist novel named Waterstones book of 2014". BBC News. Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  10. ^ "Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist voted Specsavers Book of the Year". BBC News. 22 December 2014. Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  11. ^ "The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton up for £10,000 Desmond Elliott book prize". BBC News. 2 April 2015. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  12. ^ BBC website. "BBC: The Miniaturist". Retrieved 14 December 2017.
  13. ^ a b "Cast announced for TV adaptation of Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist". Pan Macmillan. 10 April 2017. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  14. ^ "Casting revealed for BBC One's gripping adaptation of The Miniaturist". BBC. 7 April 2017. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  15. ^ "Weekly top 30 programmes – BARB".

External links[edit]